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Walt Whitman
Whitman in 1887
Whitman in 1887
Born Walter Whitman Jr.
(1819-05-31)May 31, 1819
Huntington, New York, U.S.
Died March 26, 1892(1892-03-26) (aged 72)
Camden, New Jersey, U.S.
Resting place Harleigh Cemetery
Camden, New Jersey, U.S.
  • Poet
  • essayist
  • journalist


Walter Whitman Jr. ( May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist, and journalist. He is considered one of the most influential poets in American history. Whitman incorporated both transcendentalism and realism in his writings and is often called the father of free verse. His work was controversial in his time, particularly his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass.

Whitman's influence on poetry remains strong. Art historian Mary Berenson wrote, "You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without Leaves of Grass... He has expressed that civilization, 'up to date,' as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him." Modernist poet Ezra Pound called Whitman "America's poet... He is America."

Early life

Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Town of Huntington, Long Island, the second of nine children of Quaker parents Walter (1789–1855) and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873). He was immediately nicknamed "Walt" to distinguish him from his father. Walter Whitman Sr. named three of his seven sons after American leaders: Andrew Jackson, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. The oldest was named Jesse. The couple's sixth son, the youngest, was named Edward. At the age of four, Whitman moved with his family from Huntington to Brooklyn, living in a series of homes, in part due to bad investments. Whitman looked back on his childhood as generally restless and unhappy, given his family's difficult economic struggles.

At the age of 11, Whitman ended his formal schooling and sought employment to assist his family, which was struggling economically. He was an office boy for two lawyers and later was an apprentice and printer's devil for the weekly Long Island newspaper the Patriot, edited by Samuel E. Clements. There, Whitman learned about the printing press and typesetting. He may have written "sentimental bits" of filler material for occasional issues.


Whitman worked as a journalist, a teacher, and a government clerk. His major poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, was financed with his own money and became well known. The work was an attempt to reach out to the common person with an American epic. Whitman continued expanding and revising Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892.

During the American Civil War, he went to Washington, D.C., and worked in hospitals caring for the wounded. His poetry often focused on both loss and healing. On the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman greatly admired, he authored two poems, "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", and gave a series of lectures on Lincoln.

Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854
Whitman in July 1854, aged 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison

Whitman paid for the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself and had it printed at a local print shop during their breaks from commercial jobs. A total of 795 copies were printed. The book received its strongest praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a flattering five-page letter to Whitman and spoke highly of the book to friends.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass was widely distributed and stirred up significant interest, in part due to Emerson's praise.

Leaves of Grass was revised and re-released in 1860, again in 1867, and several more times throughout the remainder of Whitman's life. Several well-known writers admired the work enough to visit Whitman, including Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau.

Health decline and death

Whitman spent his last years at his home in Camden, New Jersey, which is open to the public as the Walt Whitman House.

After suffering a stroke towards the end of his life, Whitman moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his health further declined. When he died at the age of 72, his funeral was a public event. Four days after his death, he was buried in his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. Later, the remains of Whitman's parents and two of his brothers and their families were moved to the mausoleum.

Legacy and influence

Walt Whitman, 1940
In 1940, Whitman was honored on a Famous Americans Series postage stamp issue.

Whitman has been claimed as the first "poet of democracy" in the United States, a title meant to reflect his ability to write in a singularly American character. Andrew Carnegie called him "the greatest poet of America so far".

Whitman's poetry influenced Latin American and Caribbean poets in the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with Cuban poet, philosopher, and nationalist leader José Martí. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Argentine Jorge Luis Borges acknowledged Walt Whitman's influence.

Music and audio recordings

Whitman's poetry has been set to music by more than 500 composers; indeed it has been suggested that his poetry has been set to music more than that of any other American poet except for Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Those who have set his poems to music include John Adams; Ernst Bacon; Leonard Bernstein; Benjamin Britten; Rhoda Coghill; David Conte; Ronald Corp; George Crumb; Frederick Delius; Howard Hanson; Karl Amadeus Hartmann; Hans Werner Henze; Bernard Herrmann;Jennifer Higdon; Paul Hindemith; Ned Rorem; Howard Skempton; Eva Ruth Spalding; Williametta Spencer; Charles Villiers Stanford; Robert Strassburg; Ananda Sukarlan; Ivana Marburger Themmen; Rossini Vrionides; Ralph Vaughan Williams; Kurt Weill; Helen L. Weiss; Charles Wood; and Roger Sessions. Crossing, an opera composed by Matthew Aucoin and inspired by Whitman's Civil War diaries, premiered in 2015.

Namesake recognition

Whitman's importance in American culture is reflected in schools, roads, rest stops, and bridges named after him. Among them are the Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland and Walt Whitman High School on Long Island, Walt Whitman Elementary School (Woodbury, New York), Walt Whitman Boulevard (Cherry Hill, New Jersey), and a service area on the New Jersey Turnpike in Cherry Hill, to name a few.

Walt Whitman Monument at the Walt Whitman Bridge Entrance
The Whitman statue at the entrance to the Walt Whitman Bridge, named in Whitman's honor. The bridge connects Philadelphia and South Jersey and is one of the longest bridges on the U.S. East Coast

Whitman was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2009, and, in 2013, he was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display that celebrates LGBT history and people.

A coed summer camp founded in 1948 in Piermont, New Hampshire, is named after Whitman.

A crater on Mercury is also named for him.


  • Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (1842)
  • The Half-Breed; A Tale of the Western Frontier (1846)
  • Life and Adventures of Jack Engle (serialized in 1852)
  • Leaves of Grass (1855, the first of seven editions through 1891)
  • Manly Health and Training (1858)
  • Drum-Taps (1865)
  • Democratic Vistas (1871)
  • Memoranda During the War (1876)
  • Specimen Days (1882)
  • The Wound Dresser: Letters written to his mother from the hospitals in Washington during the Civil War, edited by Richard M. Bucke (1898)
  • Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America as told to Horace Traubel, edited by Brenda Wineapple (2019)

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See also

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